The Outer Banks’ unique geography and ecology make it a year-round destination for birds and birders –one of the tops in North American with 427 species recorded! OBX is the southern terminus for wintering birds from the Arctic. It also serves as the northern range for many birds common to the southern United States.
With woodland, beach, freshwater, mudflats, scrub, sound and ocean, an extraordinary diversity of habitats attracts an equally extraordinary diversity of birds. The Outer Banks also features pocosin habitats, rare wetlands deriving their name from a Native American word meaning "swamp on a hill."
It’s a premier spot for wintering migratory waterfowl along the Atlantic Flyway. Summer brings breeding and nesting birds. Fall, warblers and shorebirds. Spring is peak season for everything. Every time of year is a good time of year for birding OBX with opportunities to add to your life list.
I went out with my wife and a friend for a casual morning of birding with Jonathan Cooley, North Carolina native and owner of Native Birding Tours. I was in town for a business retreat and neither of my companions that day were big birders. We took it easy strolling the boardwalk in Duck – so named as this charming hamlet was once a major epicenter for East Coast waterfowl hunting – and without even trying hard saw 28 species in about two hours. More expert and determined birders can see 100 in a day. Cooley facilitates those excursions along with beginner groups like mine and walks for kids too. Let’s take a trip around the sun with Cooley, learning about the top OBX bird sightings by season.
Waterfowl are the big draw during winter with rarities including Eurasian wigeon, harlequin duck, surf scooters and white winged scooters.
Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge is a bucket list experience for serious birders. A premiere NWR along the Atlantic Flyway for wintering migratory waterfowl, 40,000-acre Lake Mattamuskeet – the centerpiece of the refuge – provides forage and sanctuary for over 300,000 waterfowl each winter including snow geese and tundra swans by the tens of thousands.
Also, not to be missed – any time of year – is Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge encompassing vast acres of natural wetlands including the unique southeastern pocosin peat wetlands, open water on Pungo and New Lakes, upland pine forests and managed agricultural units. More than 100,000 ducks, geese and swans spend their winter here as well. Pocosin Lakes NWR is the site of one of the country’s largest wetland restoration projects and hosts one of the densest populations of black bears in the world.
Anyone really looking to really blow up their life list should consider an offshore birding tour for pelagics with Seabirding Pelagic Tours based in Hatteras. Great skua, black-browed albatross, yellow-nosed albatross, northern fulmar, manx shearwater, red phalarope, black-legged kittiwake, common and thick-billed murres have been seen.
Year-round pelagic tours are available, but be sure to check Seabirding’s schedule before planning your trip as their excursion frequency varies widely throughout the year. Depending on the time of year, some trips venture as far as 45 or 50 miles offshore to the Continental Shelf, others just over 15 miles. Guides seek out where the warm waters of the Gulf Stream meet the cold waters of Labrador Current, which is variable, and the resulting abundance of seabirds fishing the confluence.
“The spring blitz is the really big push in May,” Cooley says.
This is a prime season for ocean birds and shorebirds. Over the ocean from Hatteras Point, sooty shearwater, great shearwater, Wilson’s plover, storm petrels and Arctic tern bring in birders, many of whom also opt for spending at least one day offshore with a tour. An Arctic tern off Hatteras Point in May was Cooley’s favorite personal sighting last year.
While summer is not much for rarities, you can’t beat the weather and it is peak breeding season with notable species including the American oystercatcher, piping plover and Swainson’s warbler breeding at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
“In the fall you have a better chance of some of the rarities,” Cooley says.
This is the best time of year on OBX for warblers: Wilson’s warbler, Nashville warbler, Blackburnian warblers. Fall is the only time you’ll find them here. Shorebirds difficult to see anywhere else in North Carolina including Hudsonian godwit and upland sandpiper can be seen from Hatteras Point and the Manteo Airport. Red knots come through OBX during spring and fall. October brings the Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival.
The Outer Banks welcomes serious birds for serious birders, all located much closer and at a much more friendly price-point than many of the far-flung destinations birdwatchers dream of to bolster their life lists.